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Monday, June 8

Putting it into words

Couldn't resist this sea wall shot. It was important to keep the separation
between the two walls to make the most of the shadowed shapes.

Putting it into words - or, at least, trying to. That's the purpose of this post with the "it" being my current predilection for the starker, more graphic and, hopefully, striking image. After my last post where I showed a couple of atmospheric shots of Tayport I had an email from a reader saying he much preferred that style of photograph and didn't really get my efforts to swing on the coat tails of Ralph Gibson.

So I though I'd have a stab at explaining what I like about Ralph's style of photography and what I'm trying to achieve through my own. I do it with the following ringing in my ears:

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
― Ansel Adams
That might have been all very well for Ansel but he didn't have a blog to feed three times a week and, anyway, what was his Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs about then? There seemed to be rather a lot of words accompanying them. Since Ralph seemed quite happy to discuss his photography I think I'll take his lead on this one.

Shapes and Tones

Highly detailed images are all very well but I seldom see photographs in that style that I'd want to hang on my wall. The more there is going on in the print the less "artistic" it appears to me. There are exceptions. There are good reasons why it can be an excellent idea to use a larger negative or finer grained, sharper film but they generally don't translate into "artwork" from my perspective. Having spent part of last week panning art-speak I'm wary of sounding too pretentious so it's probably enough to say that too much information in a print is, well, too much information.

Remove the fingers from this pic and it's not at all obvious that there's
a hand holding onto the shadowed railings.

So if I'm not looking for sharp detail what am I after? I call it shapes and tones. It's hardly original but it sums up quite well what I like in a photograph. Interesting shapes and contrasting tones. I actively search them out and have so far found the 50mm standard lens to be entirely adequate for the quest. That's, no doubt, why I quickly grew to like the M2 and Summicron: if I don't want or need a battery of lenses then the Leica combination takes some beating.

The Summicron, being a product of the 1950s, isn't as contrasty as some modern lenses and I find that it can help to suppress unwanted detail in those situations where an optic with higher microcontrast might reveal too much texture.

When fine detail isn't required and grain isn't too important then 35mm is just as good as medium format and that's another reason why my Rolleiflex SL66 hasn't been getting as much use lately.

The danger with looking for shapes and tones is that the image becomes too abstract - at least for my taste. I don't want to end up taking photographs that look like examples from the "What might this be section" of a cheesy quiz show.

At the same time it's just as bad to produce a photograph that is so representative of something that it leaves nothing to the imagination. There's a dividing line there that is so fine my Summicron would struggle to resolve it but that's half the fun and a large part of the challenge.

At first glance it looks like there are three litter bins in this shot but
the one on the right is just a shadow.

Ralph Gibson seems to have the knack of producing just the type of photograph I like. They're seldom purely representational but, whilst often making the viewer wonder, they never seem to fall into the realm of abstraction. His pics are filled with relatively blank areas of dark and light, the key being that they're interesting shapes. They also tend to balance the composition rather than pulling it this way and that.

I'm still a bit mystified by his decision to slightly overexpose his photographs and then overdevelop them. Ralph obviously knows exactly what he's doing but I've found it easier to achieve that sort of image by underexposing slightly. I normally bracket my exposures where I think I have a worthwhile scene and it's invariably the neg that's a stop or two under that I prefer.

The photographs I've posted here will give you an idea of the type of thing I'm looking for. They were all shot on the M2 with the Summicron on Tmax 400 developed in Firstcall Superfine. All feature heavy shadows which, if I'd wanted, could have been made lighter as there's detail in the negatives. For good, strong shadows it's usual to shoot on a sunny day and, whilst that was the case with two of the pics, the sea wall at the top was taken on quite an overcast afternoon.

So that's been my approach for a few months now. Search for interesting areas of tone and try to work them into a nice composition. I get plenty of failures because this type of photography doesn't come easily to me. The biggest temptation is to go after wider, landscape-type views or just to click the shutter on something I strongly suspect won't get me what I'm after simply because I've gone a couple of days without exposing any film.

If I keep my discipline, keep looking for the graphic photograph and get the technical details right then I find the results very much to my taste. My hit rate might be reduced somewhat from my earlier landscape photography but I'm happy with fewer, more creatively satisfying images.


Herman Sheephouse said...

Bruce - superb - really - more please. The bins . . wow!

Anonymous said...

Bruce, these all look dam good to me. I very much like the work you are producing with your Leica and your continuing openness about, and sharing of your process. Antonio

Gerald said...

Yeah, what they said. Those bins are superb.

Paul Blanchard said...

It's always difficult to comment on prints seen on a screen after scanning etc. what with the differences in viewing methods,gloss v matt screens and even still flat v CRT- let alone screen settings.Just let me say that the Bins seen full screen here is one of the best shots I have seen around the Leica film world for some time.

John Carter said...

I'm close to you, I'm a composition and tones man. The problem is composition, I can get the tones I want. But that composition is a tough one.

DavidM said...

The sea wall is well done – that little, vital gap and the equally vital post in the sea that only slowly comes into awareness. The shadows of the railings is brilliant and on screen at least, beautifully printed. Just enough of a hint in the shadows and highlights, to avoid looking like a paper cut-out. A harsher print would have lost the vital, intriguing connection between the flat zig-zags of the picture plane and the three-dimensional zigzag of the real-world steps. Well done.
The three bins shot is a different matter altogether. This would be great, however it was printed. It's a very acute piece of observation by a tuned eye, rather than an exercise in composition.. That's not to say that I don't like the print, just that this picture has something extra. I doubt that most people would have seen it at all.
Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of the Shadow Portfolio?